If you are under investigation by the federal government or have been charged with a federal crime, you want to know what to do first. This page is here to give you some guidance. There’s a separate page on this site if you’ve just had a search warrant executed at your house that you may also want to read if that applies to you.
You probably know this, but the first thing to do is to hire a lawyer. Here’s a page with some guidance about how to do that.
Hiring a lawyer takes a few days or hours though, and during that time you want to know what to do and what to expect. So, here are my suggestions for the first things you can and should do while you’re hiring a lawyer. You’ll notice a theme — all of these suggestions will help you be a better part of a team with your lawyer. These suggestions can help you work together with your lawyer to get you the best result possible, in the best way possible.
With a few exceptions, very little happens very quickly in a federal criminal case or investigation. Unless someone has just been arrested and has to appear in court today or tomorrow, a judge is ordering that something happen immediately, a deadline is looming, or there’s some other clear emergency facing you with time pressure, you should take time to breathe.
Generally, you have time to learn, think, and decide. I think you should do all three. As you go through the process of dealing with whatever the federal government is doing, you should take the time — ideally with your lawyer’s help — to learn what’s happening to you, what your options are, and what’s likely to happen with each option. Lawyers have spent hundreds of years making the law complicated and hard to understand. It really shouldn’t be that way. You should do what you can, with your lawyer and without him or her, to investigate your case and understand the law that affects it.
Regardless, in almost every situation you don’t have to make a snap decision. If you have a lawyer forcing you into a snap decision, you should think about hiring a new lawyer. It’s heartbreaking how often we are the second lawyer on a case after the first lawyer forced someone into making a decision on the fly that they regret.
This website is meant to help you start learning what matters about your case. There’s information here about the process of a federal criminal case and about the law of the kinds of crimes charged in a federal criminal case. When you hire a lawyer, they can help you learn more, but, as a starting point, this can help you get information immediately, hopefully in a format that will be accessible to you.
If, as you read this, you find that you have more questions than what I answer here, please feel free to email me. I’d like to make sure this page has as much information as possible to help people trying to learn about the federal criminal justice system.
Take good notes
One thing that can be useful is to take notes about what’s happening and what’s happened. Memories fade faster than we’d like. While it may not matter now, good written notes can be very useful in keeping track of what’s happened and what’s going to happen next. These can help your lawyer know what happened.
If you’re taking notes, you should write in clear bold letters at the top of each piece of paper the notes are on – or in the file name if you’re doing it electronically, as well as in the body of the electronic document – “Attorney Client Privileged.” Make it clear in the body that you are recording these things so your lawyer can see them later. That gives you the protections of the attorney client privilege if someone from the government finds the notes.
If you know what the case is about, you can collect documents that could be relevant to it for your lawyer. It may be too early for the lawyer to do anything with them, but doing that now helps to have that done for when it’s necessary.
Make a list
Finally, a very good thing to do while you’re in the process of hiring a lawyer is to make two lists for your lawyer. You should, again, write “Attorney-Client Communication” on these lists in clearly visible letters.
The first list should be a list of questions. No matter how much time you spend researching on the internet, you will still have questions left over. Write them down. Then, when you meet with your lawyer you can go through each one and talk about it. Federal criminal cases have a lot of uncertainty. Being charged or investigated often leaves a lot open. So it may be that with many of your questions you won’t be able to get a definitive answer. Still, your lawyer should be able to tell you what goes into knowing what the answer will be.
The second list should be a list of things you think it is important for your lawyer to know. Some of this will be information about what happened. Some of it will be information about who you are or how this is affecting you. It may be that what you’ve written on the list doesn’t affect your case, but it may also be dramatically important. Write it down, both so you don’t forget and so it can help organize your conversations with the lawyer you hire.